Emotions are hard: being angry stinks, being confused is—well—confusing, and being hurt or upset is the worst. We don’t always know how to deal with these negative emotions correctly, which can result in unnecessary arguments, poor decision-making, and pity parties. But there’s no question that we feel these emotions; we feel them in our core. And oftentimes, the only remedy involves talking about or directly confronting these feelings. But what if you couldn’t? There are a select group of people who have trouble identifying, describing, and working with emotions—negative and positive. These individuals don’t respond to the aforementioned feelings the way many of us do, but instead think and behave in an operative manner thanks to a personality trait called alexithymia or ‘emotional blindness.’

Despite popular belief, people with alexithymia are typically able to acknowledge their emotions; they aren’t, however, able to elaborate on them. Seeking to shed some light on this misunderstood condition and its many aspects, researchers at SISSA in Trieste took an unconventional approach to their research: in consideration of the link between our emotions and perceptions of smells, they used olfactory (or aromatic) testing.

“There is a partial overlap between the areas in our brains which deal with olfactory perception and those which process emotions,” explains Marilena Aiello, coordinator of the research. “A test such as this may, therefore, be particularly suitable for studying this specific psychological condition.” The study “Alexithymia and emotional reactions to odors,” which was published in Scientific Reports, ultimately showed that individuals with alexithymia may have a different physiological response to olfactory stimulation.

To reach these findings, the researchers recruited and divided 62 participants into three groups according to the severity of their alexithymia: high, medium, and low. The subjects then endured multiple olfactory tests designed to analyze their reaction to different kinds of stimulation. The research team found that alexithymic individuals had rather different reactions to the smells than others. More specifically, their physiological parameters—including their heart rate and electrical conductivity of their skin—accelerated. There were also differences in those with different kinds of alexithymia: affective alexithymia, whereas one’s sensations and imagination are restricted, and cognitive alexithymia, in which one cannot identify or express emotions.

The research team was rather intrigued by the results: “Contrary to what one might expect, this study shows how the physiological reactions of alexithymic individuals to emotions induced by smells are not less but rather more intense. It is as if these subjects find themselves in a situation of perpetual, extreme activation in relation to their emotions which appears to make them insensitive to changes in them, to differences, to the color shades that enrich our daily lives. It is counterintuitive yet particularly significant scientific observation,” explain Aiello and scientist Cinzia Cecchetto.

This study shows that those with alexithymia have an altered physiological response to smells. It also finds that while these individuals have trouble feeling and expressing a broad range of emotions, they actually experience emotions induced by smells much more intensely than the majority of us—an interesting discovery that adds to the understanding of this obscure condition.

Sources: SISSA “What the Nose Reveals About Our Relationship With Emotions.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 27 October 2017.

“Alexithymia and emotional reactions to odors” by Cinzia Cecchetto, Raffaella Ida Rumiati & Marilena Aiello in Scientific Reports. Published online October 26 2017 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14404-x

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